IWD 2019: Four studies that challenge what we know about women in leadership

This International Women’s Day let’s review the latest research on the impact gender has on career success. This is a summary of the last year’s publications from the Academy of Management Journal. These recent peer-reviewed studies show us what propels women forward and what holds them back.

#1: Diversity Thresholds: How Social Norms, Visibility, and Scrutiny Relate to Group Composition

[Edward H. Chang, Katherine L. Milkman, Dolly Chugh and Modupe Akinola]

This is the research behind the WaPo article about “Twokenism” — a suspicious pattern where corporate boards gain exactly two women and then stop. The researchers uncover a social norm that people think poorly of a company with fewer than two women on the board — but there’s little pressure to increase the number beyond two.

Let’s channel Ruth Bader Ginsburg when measuring the gender and racial breakdown of every leadership group.

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#2: Gender-inclusive Gatekeeping: How (Mostly Male) Predecessors Influence the Success of Female CEOs

[Priyanka Dwivedi, Aparna Joshi and Vilmos F. Misangyi]

Corporate leaders tend to serve as gatekeepers — arbitrating who can have access to the highest levels of power. This is not news. But this paper uncovers two remarkable facts:

  • The existing male leadership can use their gatekeeping habits to empower a female CEO successor
  • There are three (!!) success paths for women gaining authority in a traditionally male-dominated firm

Women inheriting a male-dominated organization can win through three strategies the researchers describe as “ handing over the legacy”, “partnering the legacy”, and “turning around the legacy.” Each of these strategies is correlated with high company value under the new leader.

At first this strategy looks pretty simple: A male CEO steps down to allow a female CEO to take over. But that alone is a recipe for disaster — the newcomer would be held to the same standards as their veteran predecessor while also dealing with expectations biased by gender.

Success here is largely dependent on the behavior of the outgoing CEO. Specifically:

  • They need to have championed diversity broadly across the organization
  • They need to have accumulated plenty of clout (in each successful handover the researchers found the outgoing CEO had been chairperson of the board)
  • They need to personally mentor the successor

Surprisingly, of the three success strategies this was the only one that the researchers observed working in male-dominated industries. And in all cases the incoming female CEO at one point served as chairperson of the board.

This strategy works when the outgoing CEO had only a moderate amount of clout. If the outgoing CEO has never served as chairperson of the board then this strategy works — but the incoming female CEO likely won’t serve as chairperson either.

Success here requires that the incoming CEO have the same domain-specific skills as the outgoing CEO and that the outgoing CEO takes a seat on the board.

This is like the previous two except that the company isn’t doing well before the handover. In this case — like each success scenario — the incoming female CEO succeeds when they are given enough mentoring, access, and sponsorship by the existing leadership.

The impact of existing male leadership on incoming female leadership is enormous. This research makes a strong case for focused, personal sponsorship of high-potential women in a company.

#3: One Step Forward, One Step Back: White Male Top Manager Organizational Identification and Helping Behavior toward Other Executives Following the Appointment of a Female or Racial Minority CEO

[Michael L. McDonald, Gareth D. Keeves and James D. Westphal]

This one’s a sad read. When a women or non-White person becomes CEO the other White male leaders at the company feel less identified with the company. And as a result they support their colleagues — even other White men — less.

This paper is fascinating because it investigates many of our assumptions about what happens when an ethnic or gender minority becomes CEO of a company. We might justifiably assume that this empowers the other minorities at the company; thinning the glass ceiling for everyone.

But the research here demonstrates that white male top leaders feel less supported and understood by the new CEO. They also see their chances at ever being CEO diminished considerably. This means they don’t support each other as much and they support minorities even less because they assume the new CEO will do that. Compounding this, the new CEO has trouble getting the existing top leadership to pick up as much extra work as they normally would so the CEO has even less time to support minorities in the company.

Which means appointing a minority to a CEO position can have seriously negative consequences for the success of other minorities in the company.

Don’t let your senior leadership become all White (or, in some industries, White or Asian) men. You can’t solve that even by appointing a new CEO.

#4: The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence

[Elizabeth J. McClean, Sean R. Martin, Kyle J. Emich and Col. Todd Woodruff]

When we’re in a meeting with our peers we do what this paper calls “voice calculus” — weighing the cost of speaking up against the possible negative effects. These researchers find that speaking up can result in looking like a leader among your peers. But only if you’re male.

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This study compared men and women speaking up using either “promotive” voice (suggesting ways to fix problems) or “prohibitive” voice (pointing out problems). While the results for women look different the error bars are too close — using one voice or another isn’t statistically significant. But men get a statistically significant boost in how people perceive them as a leader when they speak up promotively.

When women speak up with a plan to solve a problem let’s put them in charge.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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